Whether it is dealing with infidelity, shameful sexual desires, or a host of other reasons, I often see couples struggling with ways to bring up and discuss uncomfortable issues. Often these struggles center around confusion over the difference between privacy and secrecy, an issue that is often discussed in my office, and one that I think requires further examination. Partners may feel unnecessary overwhelming guilt over not divulging private things, while others may think that matters of secrecy don’t require any transparency. Both are mistakes with predictably negative outcomes. So let’s get into it by first defining both terms.

Privacy refers to matters that are not meant to be shared. These are issues that do not affect the relationship and may even be considered oversharing, as there is nothing positive, and perhaps even negative outcomes that can occur by bringing them up. A good example of this would be an erotic dream that an individual may have about an ex-lover. That dream may have strong emotional content and may certainly be worth examining further, but if the individual has no interest in seeing the ex again, then it really has no effect on the relationship. While discussing the dream with one’s partner may lead to an interesting conversation, it is not vital to the relationship, and may even backfire, as the partner may start feeling insecure or jealous about the nature of the dream. In other words, this is often a case of let sleeping dogs lie.

I have seen numerous situations where individuals get bogged down in guilt and self-flagellation over the things they have not disclosed to their partners. They may have learned that the best relationships involve transparency, which is certainly true, but it is also only true in the right context. Transparency is extremely important when it comes to things that impact the relationship, such as emotions, thoughts, and actions that are relevant to both individuals. It is also helpful to share things that don’t have a direct influence on the relationship, such as thoughts and feelings on a wide range of topics that may of interest to either person. But none of these scenarios involve privacy. For things that are private, sometimes silence is the best policy.

Let’s now compare this to secrecy. Secrets, for the sake of this discussion, are issues that are not disclosed to one’s partner but that greatly affect both the partner and the relationship. Secrets, one may argue, are nonconsensual, since by affecting the partner, but not disclosing, the other individual deprives their partner of making informed decisions. Typical examples include infidelity, undisclosed STIs, and undisclosed promises or business dealings that affect the relationship.

Let’s take a look at a few case examples that illustrate the difference between privacy and secrecy. By doing so, I hope to provide solutions for individuals that find themselves in relationship impasses. Let’s say one partner discloses that he wants to have sex with someone outside of the relationship. If this is merely a fantasy that is only intended for private consumption, then it is a matter of privacy and there may be no need to disclose. However, if the individual intends to act out these desires, then it is imperative that he discloses, otherwise he would be engaging in secrecy. A fantasy with no intent of action behind it does not impact the relationship, but the act of having sex outside the relationship has a significant impact. Often individuals struggle to voice their desires, for fear of a negative response. This is where transparency is most important, as both individuals need to collaborate on fostering a safe environment for disclosure.

Often, folks may be surprised to find that their partner is more receptive to their desires than they imagined. They may agree to open up the relationship, with certain caveats and firm boundaries. Sometimes an individual is willing to let their partner experiment with other people but they don’t want to hear all of the intricate details. They may want to support their partner in their desires, but know they cannot tolerate participating on a deeper level, even if it is only to discuss what happened. In this case, partners may opt for a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) arrangement, in which they agree to open up the relationship so long as it doesn’t come up or interfere with their regular routine. When things have been agreed to consensually, we are no longer in the realm of secrecy but have now moved back into privacy. At this point, since everything has been discussed and agreed upon beforehand, everything that the partner does within limits of the agreement is considered private and is better off not being disclosed. In fact, within a DADT arrangement, disclosing would break the agreement and invite potential disaster.

This is a perfect example of how transparency is contextual. It is necessary for both partners to authentically air their wishes and come up with an agreed upon solution, but becomes counterproductive at a certain point when it violates the needs and boundaries of the relationship. This difference between privacy and secrecy is simple in nature but ensnares a lot of people into a web of confusion and unnecessary distress. Secrecy is rarely, if ever, good; privacy is often a necessary condition for any healthy relationship. By untangling these distinctions, individuals are better able to make decisions on what needs or does not need to be discussed within the relationship. Most importantly, individuals can stop worrying about their privacy and instead focus on making sure that no secrecy undermines the relationship.